When it comes to holiday horror movies, Christmas is second only to Halloween itself. Since its humble inception five or so years ago, Cinema Fearité has covered Jack Frost, Don’t Open Till Christmas, Christmas Evil, To All a Good Night, and Black Christmas. When most people think of Christmas horror movies, however, there’s one movie that comes to mind even before any of those – the 1984 Santa slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is about a young boy named Billy who, already afraid of Santa Claus because of his Grandfather’s musings that the man in red punishes bad kids, witnesses his parents’ brutal murder at the hands of a criminal dressed as Saint Nick. Their parents dead, Billy and his brother grow up in an orphanage where the concept of punishment is further ingrained into them by the cruel Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin from Predator 2 and Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings). At 18, Billy (Robert Brian Wilson from “Santa Barbara”) is kicked out of the orphanage and given a job at a toy store. When the toy store’s Santa gets sick, Billy is tapped to wear the beard and red suit. Just the act of putting on the costume pushed Billy’s mind over the edge, and the unhinged young man starts a killing spree, punishing everyone who gets in his way with death.
Although it seems like a throwaway holiday slasher, Silent Night, Deadly Night has a pretty well-crafted plot, with defined character motivations and a dramatic story arc. It also just so happens to have a bloody, double-digit body count. The film has humble beginnings; the director, Charlies E. Sellier Jr., was a producer of exploitation documentaries like In Search of Noah’s Ark and The Lincoln Conspiracy, and the film is a first and only feature screenwriting credit for both Michael Hickey and Paul Caimi. Despite the lack of horror filmmaking experience, Silent Night, Deadly Night has become a legendary piece of eighties fright-flick history.
The fact that Silent Night, Deadly Night included a psycho killer dressed as Santa Claus did not sit well with some people. Theaters that showed the film attracted picketers and protestors, never mind the fact that a killer Santa stalked movie screens a dozen years before in Tales from the Crypt and again in two 1980 movies, Christmas Evil and To All a Good Night. Although the film was initially withdrawn from theaters by distributor TriStar Pictures due to the protests, new distributor Aquarius Films re-released it a year later with an ad campaign that embraced the controversy, selling Silent Night, Deadly Night as a movie that “they” tried to keep people from seeing.
If it wasn’t for the hullabaloo surrounding Silent Night, Deadly Night, the movie would probably have just faded away into obscurity. It’s an extremely low-budget affair, and it looks it. The film was shot on sparse sets using mostly inexperienced actors. In the mid-eighties, when the film was made, the horror world was drowning in slasher movies, and Silent Night, Deadly Night was just another fish in the sea. The protestors actually helped cement the movie’s place in horror history.
The one place where Silent Night, Deadly Night does not look cheap is in its special effects. There are a handful off creative kill scenes that rival even the great Happy Birthday to Me in their ingenuity. In one scene, Billy (dressed as Santa) breaks in and kills a young babysitter (played by Linnea Quigley from Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Savage Streets) who he catches fooling around with her boyfriend by impaling her on a pair of antlers from a deer’s head on the wall. In another scene, Billy steps out from behind a tree and decapitates a hapless bully (John Bishop, who also appeared in Footloose that year) who is riding a stolen sled down a hill. These are the types of scenes that slasher fans will remember, but may not be able to place in a movie. They’re from Silent Night, Deadly Night.
The music in Silent Night, Deadly Night is remarkable as well. The filmic score was composed by Perry Botkin, Jr. (“Mork & Mindy”), and the rumor is that he wrote most of it in real time while playing along to a working videotape of the film, going back later to add in more layers of sound and instruments. The music itself is a crazy mixture of cacophony and melody, with synthesized harpsichords and basses chugging along with a handful of textural sound effects chucked in for good measure, and just enough sleighbells for it to sound Christmasy.
Predictably, there’s also some spooky children’s singing of mock Christmas carols in there, too. Not so predictably, however, there are a handful of sugary-sweet tunes in the film that were written by pop songstress Morgan Ames – highlights include a silly number called “The Warm Side of the Door” that illustrates how well-adjusted Billy is while he is working at the toy store (just before he snaps) and a singalong called “Santa’s Watching” that marries a catchy melody with creepy lyrics. Between the score and the pop songs, the soundtrack to Silent Night, Deadly Night is a fun one.
Silent Night, Deadly Night went on to spawn no fewer than four sequels, each more bizarre than the last, and a modern remake, as loose as it is, simply called Silent Night. All of this makes it a pretty successful horror franchise. And it all started with a movie that “they” tried to keep people from seeing.